September 19, 2014

Success for Martha Coakley, Scott Brown, and Charlie Baker this November may depend on a proper appreciation of the difference between US Senate and gubernatorial elections.

Both major party candidates from the infamous 2010 US Senate special election are back in 2014 running for statewide office. Attorney General Martha Coakley is running for governor in the Bay State, while former senator Scott Brown is trying to unseat New Hampshire US Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Lots of folks are speculating about what Coakley’s 2010 defeat portends for this fall’s race for the corner office, and lots of this speculation is based on a misread of the 2010 special election that sent Scott Brown to Washington, albeit briefly.

The “blame Martha” theory holds that Coakley blew a comfortable lead in the last few weeks of the 2010 race by allowing Brown to outshine her on the campaign trail. In other words, her campaign faltered, while Brown’s soared. The reality is that candidate quality had less to do with the outcome than did the national narrative and the timing of that special election (January). All other things being equal, the Republican candidate (Scott Brown) won because voters who opposed all or part(s) of President Obama’s healthcare reform bill had strong incentives to use the special US Senate election as a means of expressing their opposition. The Obamacare narrative was a boon to Republican voter mobilization efforts, as was the fact that Brown’s candidacy was the only game in town, which allowed Republican/Tea Party money and manpower from across the country to be employed in the fight for Ted Kennedy’s US Senate seat (Brown debate zinger aside). Unfortunately for Democrats, the defense of Kennedy’s seat wasn’t nearly as effective a rallying cry for Democratic voters. In fact, progressive activists in Massachusetts were not at all happy with the Kennedy-supported Affordable Care Act. Having failed to fight for the inclusion of the so-called “public option” there was considerable disappointment with the president among progressives in the state who otherwise would have been key to the effective mobilization of Democratic voters in a January special statewide election. In other words, Brown won because Republican/conservative voter turnout was unusually high AND Democratic/progressive turnout was unusually low for reasons beyond the control of either candidate.

One lesson of the 2010 Special US Senate election was that US Senate contests are about voter mobilization and turnout more than candidate quality. Scott Brown didn’t quite grasp this lesson until being handily defeated by first-time candidate Elizabeth Warren in 2012. However, you have to give Brown credit. When he figured out that US Senate races are driven by the national partisan narrative more than they are by the candidates, he packed up and moved to a state where being a Republican could trump being a good candidate. To date, Brown’s New Hampshire campaign has been very poorly run. His once vaunted campaign skills now appear to have been an illusion, and yet despite his incompetence, the latest polls have him in a very close contest with Jeanne Shaheen. It appears that his electoral fate is once again tied to voters’ partisanship, which is what doomed him in 2012 but also what gives him a fighting chance in New Hampshire this year.

Martha Coakley, who was easily reelected State Attorney-General nine months after losing to Brown in 2010, is now running for a statewide office that may well depend as much or more on candidate quality and performance as it does on the partisan political narrative. Campaigns for US Senator and Representative cannot avoid the national partisan political narrative, nor can they distract voters from policy partisanship by emphasizing their candidate’s managerial experience and skills. Candidates seeking legislative seats in Washington who want to de-emphasize party must rely on amorphous traits like “leadership.” But the corner office on Beacon Hill is different. Gubernatorial candidates have a much easier time de-emphasizing party labels because they are running for executive office. While no Republican is likely to win a US Senate seat from Massachusetts in the foreseeable future, the fact that governors are chief executives serves to keep the corner office within the reach of Republican candidates in Massachusetts.

Unlike the 2010 Special US Senate election, neither major party candidate in this year’s governor’s race will owe their electoral fate to forces beyond their control. The degree to which partisanship and the national political narrative will be determinative in this race depends in some measure on the candidates’ ability to frame the election for the media and for the voters. All other things being equal, Coakley’s chances are tied to her ability to avoid “game changing” gaffes (think Todd Akin) and to her ability to frame the race in partisan terms. If voters casting ballots for Democratic congressional candidates and Democratic candidates for other statewide constitutional offices (sec. of state, auditor, treasurer, attorney-general) perceive Charlie Baker to be allied with Washington Republican in style or substance, Martha Coakley will win. If, on the other hand, enough of these same voters can be convinced that Baker will provide both effective management of state government and a check on the entrenched partisan power brokers of Beacon Hill, then Baker could win. If the campaign narrative in this race is more partisan than personal then Coakley will win, but if it is more personal than partisan then Baker could win.

Careful readers will note the difference in the paragraph above between “will” and “could.” While candidate quality and campaign messaging almost certainly matter more in Massachusetts gubernatorial contests than in US Senate races, Democrats do have several built in structural advantages in the Bay State. Unlike Baker, Coakley will benefit from a three-to-one registration advantage; a statewide coordinated campaign that will significantly out-perform that of the MassGOP, and the active support of the state’s entire congressional delegation, none of whom have to worry about fending off a viable opponent this fall. Baker’s ability to mitigate the impact these built in Democratic advantages may hinge on his ability to out fund raise his Democratic opponent by leaps and bounds, and while at present Baker does have a huge fundraising advantage, maintaining and expanding that advantage will be a very tall order indeed.

Martha Coakley, Scott Brown

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